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Local exec scouts new eating challenge

Dave Ulgenalp has had success with Checkers and Panera Bread. Now, watch for BD's Mongolian Barbeque.

By SCOTT BARANCIK
Published February 26, 2005


BD's Mongolian Barbeque, a grill-while-you-watch stir-fry chain loosely based on the legacy of Genghis Kahn, is planning to invade Florida.

Again.

Dave Ulgenalp, a Tarpon Springs resident and former executive with Panera Bread and Checkers Drive-In Restaurants, has struck an agreement with Ferndale, Mich.-based BD's to open as many as 14 franchises in central Florida by 2012, including one this year in northern Pinellas County.

This is no trial balloon, Ulgenalp said. One of his partners is at BD's headquarters participating in a six-month boot camp that includes waiting tables and scrubbing dishes. Nor are they fishing for more investors. "We have the capital and the experience to find them (locations), develop them and operate them ourselves."

Ulgenalp is not the first to try to bring BD's, a 24-unit chain founded in 1992, to Florida.

A West Palm Beach franchise closed in 2002 after 18 months - a victim, BD's founder and namesake Billy Downs said in an e-mail Thursday, of the 9/11 attacks and the tourism drought that followed.

"Our oldest and strongest market, metro Detroit, will have more than 10 units in a short period of time," Downs added. "We believe that because demographics are similar with the Midwest and the Tampa/Orlando markets, there's a great opportunity for multiple units. However, we intend to grow slowly."

BD's is growing more slowly than its owners once hoped. In a 2001 interview with Nation's Restaurant News, for example, Downs forecast the chain would grow from 21 restaurants to 50 by 2004.

Fans of Dish, a local chain found at BayWalk in St. Petersburg and Centro Ybor in Tampa, may notice some similarities.

Both chains invite customers to browse buffets filled with raw meats, vegetables and sauces, fill a bowl with their vittles of choice, and watch as a chef cooks their and others' meals on a large, round grill. It's a gimmick designed for communal fun, if not speedy dining. Lines at the grills can be long.

But Ulgenalp and Dish president/co-owner John Schall agree the parallels end there.

"I never use the term (Mongolian barbecue) for Dish," Schall said. "It's generally associated with a Chinese restaurant, thin, runny sauces; razor-thin, shaved, frozen meats. . . . They don't have any of the kind of seafood I have. . . . They don't have top sirloin. . . . I have sauces of every ethnicity you could imagine, and some you can't."

"You hate to pound on a competitor," Ulgenalp countered, "but the reality is, BD's does better volume, and the reason is they offer better service and better product in, I think, a better environment."

Ulgenalp, 46, comes to the task with substantial experience. He was vice president of manufacturing and franchise sales at Checkers until 1995, when president Rick Postle left to become CEO of Saint Louis Bread Co. There, the two helped create a franchise plan and a brand change, transforming Saint Louis Bread into Panera Bread.

Later, Ulgenalp left the executive suite to become a Panera franchisee. He owns 11 locations in Nebraska and Iowa and is adding two, including one in South Dakota. The dearth of competition in those states made them a compelling choice.

"Nothing wrong with picking the easiest route," he joked.

But the Bloomfield Hills, Mich., native said he was looking for a new challenge last year when he saw a BD's display at a restaurant convention. Now, he and his wife, Lisa, are majority partners in a new company, Mongrill LLC, that is scouting for a location in Clearwater, Countryside, Palm Harbor or Oldsmar to build a 5,500-square-foot, 200-seat restaurant. The couple expects each restaurant to cost about $1-million. Unless they hurry, it's likely that Downs will open a restaurant in Mongolia first.

Yes, Mongolia. A nonprofit restaurant in the capital city of Ulaanbaatar, to be precise.

The connection between BD's and Genghis Khan, whose Mongol tribes slaughtered their way across Asia on horseback in the 13th century, is thin. BD's and other self-described Mongolian barbecues trade on the idea that Genghis' armies cooked their meals communally over an open fire, cutting the food with their swords and searing it on overturned shields.

BD's just takes the idea a little further.

Its 9-foot mascot, Mongo Man, is available for parties. Customers who subscribe to the chain's electronic newsletter become part of what it calls the "Mongolian Horde."

But if the idea of opening a restaurant in Mongolia seems unlikely - according to Downs, BD's would be the first American chain to do so - it appears imminent. Downs and several colleagues spent nearly two weeks in the country last year, and he plans to be on site late next month to help finish construction.

If all goes well, the restaurant will open in May, and BD's will contribute an estimated $25,000 in profits per year to a local youth development foundation.

"We've been trading on Mongolian culture for a while now," Downs told the Detroit Free Press last year, "and this is a chance for us to give back."

Scott Barancik can be reached at 727 893-8751 or barancik@sptimes.com

[Last modified February 26, 2005, 01:14:15]


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